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(The Root) —

"One line of my family tree, surname Hereford, has lived in the area of Huntsville, Ala., since at least the early 1900s. In researching this line via U.S. census documents, I have found the last name to be spelled multiple different ways, including 'Heriford' and 'Hurford.' I have been able to find what seems to be the same family members in different census documents, but it is hard to be sure with the spelling changes. How do I accurately put together my family tree when it seems that this family surname has been reported with various spellings over time?" —Cleo Hereford

For genealogists of all levels, finding a document with a variation in the spelling of a name, or date that is slightly off, can confuse the research process. Although some parts of a record might seem like they may be describing your ancestor, small differences can raise big questions. There are many reasons for these variations, and knowing why these happen will help guide your research.

Why Spelling Variations Happen

First, when looking at any source, it is important to understand who is providing the information recorded in the document. For census records, it was common for one person to give the information for the entire household. If your ancestors were boarders in a household, the person giving the information to the census taker may not be very familiar with your ancestors and would give an approximate birth year or the wrong surname.


Even birth and death records can be incorrect, depending on who was reporting the information. For example, if one of your ancestors survived their spouse and all of their children, a more distant relative, such as a niece, nephew or grandchild might be giving information for the death certificate. This relative may not know the spelling of a maiden name, place of birth or an exact birth date. All of these things could lead to inaccurate information being recorded on a document.

You also have to consider who was creating the record. Again, for census records, the census taker might just be writing down the name as it sounds without asking about the spelling. Furthermore, census takers could have made a mistake when they were writing down the information, or it was copied over incorrectly later.

In addition to these possible mistakes, in the past it was more common to have variations in spellings of surnames. In very early records, like those in the late 17th- and early 18th-century Colonial America, it was common for both given and surnames to have several spelling variations. There are even examples of names being spelled differently within the same document.


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In African-American genealogy, especially in the years immediately after the Civil War, there is the additional challenge that arises from the fact that African Americans were not granted the same educational opportunities as free whites. Given this, formerly enslaves African Americans were not taught how to read or write, and this is another reason why the spelling of a surname may vary.

Narrowing Down the Possibilities

Knowing these limitations, there are some tips and tricks you can use that will help you avoid some of these pitfalls. If you are searching census records and your ancestor has a somewhat unique given name, try searching just using the person's first name, date and place of birth. This will return results where the surname is spelled completely wrong or recorded incorrectly. You can use other clues, such as other known family members or occupation to help verify that you did in fact find a record of your ancestors with the surname spelled wrong.


If you have an idea of where your ancestor lived but you are not finding them when you search for them in census collections, you might try browsing each record page by page until you find a possible record of your family based on the given names and ages of the family members.

If you do find a census record that seems to be a record of your ancestor, but you are still not sure, you can use other clues from the nearby census pages to help you confirm. You can also ask questions such as: Are the names and birthdates of the children and siblings similar to the family you are researching? Are there any other known siblings or parents living nearby? The more information you find about the people in each of these potential records of your ancestors, the more you will be able to piece together the parts of their lives to confirm whether or not these records with incorrect spelling are in fact for your ancestors.

Newspapers and city directories are other sources that can help you confirm a misspelled document. For example, the 1900 Huntsville, Ala., directory may show that a John Hereford lived at 123 Main Street, while the census shows that John Heriford lived at 123 Main Street. With these two records, you can deduce that there was probably a spelling error in at least one of the documents.


You can also use the information you find in the census records to try to trace the person forward to determine whether or not you have found a record of your ancestor. Let's say, hypothetically, you find a man named John Heriford in the 1910 census. According to this record, he was born in 1860 in Alabama, married to a 38-year-old woman named Jane and working as a laborer.

You then search for records of this man in the 1920 U.S. Federal Census, and you find a John Hurford who was 49 years old, born in Alabama, working as a laborer and living with his wife, Jane. In all likelihood, these are probably records of the same person, but from your own family records you have an old death certificate that shows that your ancestor John Hereford, of the same age and birthplace, died in 1918. Given this, you know that the record from 1910 is probably not a record of your ancestor because this same person is still alive in 1920.

Once you understand the challenges of working with documents that have variations in spelling of names, you can begin to search for earlier records of your ancestors. You know that your Hereford family was in the Huntsville area as early as 1900, so the next step in your research is to determine whether or not they moved to Huntsville or if they were there much earlier.


If you are unable to go back any further in your census record research, you can also expand your research by searching for the history of the Hereford surname in Huntsville. Was there are a large plantation or slaveholder whose surname was also Hereford before the Civil War? Were there relatively few African-American families with the surname Hereford in Huntsville until the 1900s?

To answer these questions you may want to do a broad search of the Hereford name in the 1870 and 1880 censuses. On the subscription site, you can use advanced options to search for African-American records only, by entering information into the race field. You may want to also search published histories about Huntsville to see if there is any information about a slave owning family named Hereford.

Google Books is a great tool to search for the history of a surname in a particular area. You would want to type " 'Hereford family' Huntsville, Alabama," into the search bar. By using quotation marks around the words Hereford family, you will ensure that the results you see always have these two words together, which will give you better results. You can view entire books that are out of copyright online for free. This is a good source, since there were many local histories published in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It is important to note that sometimes the information in these local histories was inaccurate, but they can be a great starting point for research.


In general, when you find a document with a spelling variation in your research, be careful not to rule it out too quickly because of a few small errors. Instead, conduct additional research on people in the document and use other clues from your own research to determine if this one document fits into your family's story.

Henry Louis Gates Jr. is the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and founding director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University. He is also the editor-in-chief of The Root. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.

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This answer was provided in consultation with Kristin Britanik, a researcher from New England Historic Genealogical Society. Founded in 1845, NEHGS is the country's leading nonprofit resource for family history research. Its website,, contains more than 300 million searchable records for research in New England, New York and beyond. With the leading experts in the field, NEHGS staff can provide assistance and guidance for questions in most research areas. They can also be hired to conduct research on your family. Learn more today.

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